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“Creed II”, or “How to Train Your Drago”

Creed II!

This time around, “Baby Creed” has a happier, less insulting context.

Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover: Creed, the seventh film in Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky series, was one of my two favorite films of 2015. It was the first major-studio film for director Ryan Coogler, whose debut Fruitvale Station was my favorite film of 2013. This year’s Coogler model, the amazing colossal Black Panther, will be ranking very, very high for this year’s standings. Tangential note: remember how Black Panther was a 2018 release, even though it feels five years old by now, because 2018 has been that kind of year?

I was a little nervous knowing Coogler would be handing over the reins of Creed II to a relative newcomer, one Steven Caple, Jr. Granted, we knew the main cast would be back — Stallone himself, Thor: Ragnarok‘s Tessa Thompson’s Bianca (levels above the standard Concerned Girlfriend), and of course Michael B. Jordan, star of Fruitvale Station and costar of Black Panther and season 1 of The Wire, which I will never, ever stop name-checking. With the larger-than-life core of Creed still intact, could failure possibly be an option?

Short version for the unfamiliar: Adonis “Donnie” Creed, son of the late Apollo Creed, is still kind of a big deal in boxing. The opening sequence sees him compensating for the ending of his first film and nabbing that champion belt after all. Just when he thinks he’s king of the world and all is well within his domain, a new challenge arrives from the other side of the world, and a familiar, haunting name from Rocky’s past: Drago.

I saw Rocky IV in theaters when I was 13. I thought nothing in a Rocky film could’ve shocked me again after watching Mr. T. perpetrate manslaughter on a frail Burgess Meredith in Rocky III (I was 10, it was at the drive-in, and I thought Clubber Lang was absolutely terrifying), but I was unprepared for the sight of the brutal death of Rocky’s enemy-turned-best-friend Apollo. When Rocky vanquished Dolph Lundgren’s behemoth Ivan Drago at the end, it was the only time I’ve ever seen dudes jumping out of their seats, cheering stadium-style, and fist-pumping at a movie. You don’t forget a cinematic moment like that one no matter how manipulative or jingoistic it might’ve been. When you’re as caught up in the moment as they are, it’s also hard to knock such an outburst when that’s how you’re feeling on the inside. Such was the magic of the Rocky Cinematic Universe in its prime.

Now it’s Creed who’s in his prime, but his complacency gets rattled with the unannounced arrival of a grizzled Ivan Drago. Life in the Ukraine has been miserable for him ever since Rocky shamed him in front of his superiors. Obviously he and Rocky are too old to spar, but he’s seen Rocky’s protégé in action and decided now’s the time for payback. Along for the ride is his son Viktor Drago (actual heavyweight boxer Florian Munteanu), raised like a lab rat in a cage to train, to bulk up, to fight without mercy, to capture the glory days that his old man was denied, and hopefully to impress the wife and mom that abandoned them both. Viktor is the pet and the product of the cruelest, bitterest soccer-dad in the world.

As for Donnie? All he knows is he’s being dissed and called out by the son of the man who murdered his dad. But when he rushes to get into the ring, is it to avenge that death and his consequently fatherless childhood…or something less?

Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Also returning from Creed #1 are Phylicia Rashad as Creed’s adopted mom, who’s none too impressed with Donnie’s need to go prove himself yet again; The Wire‘s Wood Harris as the son of Apollo’s trainer, who pitches in to work with Donnie for a spell; and retired boxer Andre Ward as the previously defeated opponent Danny “The Stuntman” Wheeler, who has to go up against Our Hero yet again. Since the film isn’t called Stuntman, the end of that rematch is an easy bet.

Old friends from previous Rocky movies include Brigitte Nielsen (whom I barely recognized at first) as Drago’s ex-wife and Viktor’s upscale deadbeat mom; and a very special surprise face from the sixth one, Rocky Balboa. New to the mix is Russell Hornsby (late of NBC’s Grimm) as a promoter with dollar signs in his eyes, gleefully looking to score off the big blood feud between Son of Creed and Son of Creed’s Killer.

Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? Morals of the story include but aren’t limited to:

  • The bigger they are, the harder they fall. Sometimes that goes double for heroes.
  • Which is worse when it comes to getting you hurt: fear or pride?
  • When someone tries picking a fight with you, you’re not required by law to say yes, despite Marty McFly’s bad example.
  • If your job description insists you have to fight someone, at least choose your opponent for good reasons.
  • Vengeance is rarely a good reason to do most things.
  • Vengeance-by-proxy is…even less wise.
  • Is it wise to put yourself in harm’s way if your family will suffer if you blow it?
  • Parents who raise their children specifically to confront and vanquish their own youthful failures are not the best parents.
  • When your wiser relatives tell you “no” on something, maybe they have good reasons and you should stop being a stubborn numbskull?
Ivan Drago!

Return of the Drago. Red Drago. Father of Dragos. Berry Gordy’s the Last Drago. I could do this all day.

Nitpicking? Given that the U.S.S.R. ceased to exist a few years after their career-defining role as the real villain in Rocky IV, anyone hoping Creed II would embrace that same patriotic fervor — particularly in these turbulent times when US/Russia tensions are a thing all over again — may come away disappointed that Caple and the four credited screenwriters (including Stallone himself and Luke Cage showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker) have dialed down the international rivalry aspect. The Dragos now live in poverty in Ukraine, hoping to ingratiate themselves with The Powers That be but largely operating on their own out of their hovel in the Ukraine. The central conflicts are more about fathers and sons, and about proud falls from grace, than about indulging anyone’s need to chant “U! S! A! U! S! A!” at the end of a film. I mean, you still can if you feel like it, but Creed II isn’t waving a flag in your face like a conductor’s wand.

In that sense, Creed II feels almost deflated by unfair comparison. It’s a perfectly competent sports film in its own right, but doesn’t elicit quite the same zeal as its predecessors, and doesn’t show off any real visual tricks except a few moments of first-person Dude-Getting-Pummeled-in-a-Corner-Cam. Fighter entrances are flashy music-video pageantry with their own sense of style apart from everything else, but they’re in stark contrast to mere decent boxing. (Though I’ll admit With today’s digital advancements, slow-motion beatdowns look more painful nowadays.)

During the movie my son and had a hard time believing Viktor and Donnie were in the same weight class, remembering that Donnie was not gunning for heavyweight champ in the first one. Munteanu is 6-foot-4, a good 4 inches taller than Jordan, and appears to have been carved out of a granite boulder by an army of meticulous macho sculptors. However, online interviews insist Jordan put on a couple dozen extra pounds of muscle for this role — even more than he added to play Killmonger — and legitimately qualified to share that ring. No one in the film asked or answered that question, leaving it up to us to keep our brows furrowed for the next hour till we could go look it up later. (At least they didn’t put Jordan up on an orange crate in every scene. That’d make for one heck of an awkward fight.)

Also, remember that time Bianca was dealing with going increasingly deafer? Guess that deterioration went into remission like Rocky’s cancer did?

So what’s to like? If you fell in love with the characters in the first one, or in that classic Rocky six-pack, then spending more time with them is a pretty cool use of your time. Jordan is still charismatic in combat and around his loved ones, when he’s not letting pride mess with him. Tessa Thompson is still Tessa Thompson, rocking her in-character musical numbers (“I Will Go to War” straight-up rules) and effectively having to take charge whenever her pigheaded man forgets to check himself. Stallone doesn’t face quite the same emotional challenges as he did last time, but he can still carry his weight, especially in a scene where he and Ivan exchange words for the first time in thirty years. Lundgren has a few more lines this time around, and in some parts is more menacing than his son (sometimes to his son).

Credit goes to the much sharper Creed for bringing boxing films forward to the present and setting up the space where Creed II gets to operate. The successor stays safely inside the ropes, but it’s an eminently entertaining fifteen rounds, especially in an era when we’re not seeing as many old-fashioned sports films as Hollywood served up in times past. Longtime MCC readers know I’m not a big sports fan, but sports movies have their long-standing place in the medium, and it’s nice to see the Creed series holding on to it for a new generation.

(Admittedly, I can’t imagine where a Creed III would go from here. Unless there’s a filmmaker out there bold enough to recruit John Cena as Son of Thunderlips.)

How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after the Creed II end credits, but more soundtrack at top volume, which was fine by me. Needed more Tessa Thompson, though.

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